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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 38 (January 22, 2009)

All Headlines 10:09 January 22, 2009


N. Korea Not Likely to Collapse: Seoul Think Tank

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- There is little possibility of regime collapse in North Korea despite doubts over leader Kim Jong-il's long-term ability to govern and growing social distress, a Seoul think tank said.

Speculation has swirled about North Korea's stability since Kim's reported stroke in August last year. He remained out of the public eye for weeks, but Seoul and Washington officials say he is now recovering and in full command.

"Protracted economic woes have weakened social discipline and stirred discontent among North Korea's citizens, but the predominant view is that it is an overreaction to read these as signs pointing to North Korea's collapse," the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul said in a report.

But suspicions about Kim's health remain. A North Korean television station has yet to release its regular documentary film on its leader, usually aired during the first week of each year. It aired on Jan. 6 in 2008, but so far only a collection of photos has appeared on (North) Korean Central Television this year.

Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said Kim appeared to be in full command, citing recent photos released by North Korea's media outlets, but admitted no one can be entirely sure about what goes on inside the secretive state.

"No one knows if the photos are genuine. But they seem to be, according to the assessments of many people and the circumstances," he told a group of reporters on Jan. 14.

Concerning North Korea's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, the think tank said Pyongyang had operated a biochemical weapons program beginning in the 1960s and their actual production is believed to have started in the 1980s.

North Korea has roughly 2,500 to 5,000 tons of nerve agents stored across the country and is capable of producing biological weapons such as anthrax, smallpox and cholera, the think tank said.


Power Succession in N.K. Seems to Emerge As Priority Quite Recently

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may have recently begun seriously thinking about picking his successor after his health apparently failed in August, the chief U.S. nuclear envoy said on Jan. 16.

"The fact that he was quite ill a few months ago is leading to the question of who's going to succeed him," Christopher Hill said in an interview with C-Span's Washington Journal. "It's very clear that North Korea is beginning to think about succession."

Hill, who doubles as assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific affairs, said, however, that he did not know "whether these stories we're reading about in the press in the last 24 hours are true, that he's named his youngest son as a successor."

Reports said that the 66-year-old Kim has recently named his third and youngest son, Jong-un, as his heir apparent apparently due to his health failure.

Kim Jong-il is believed to have suffered a stroke and undergone major heart surgery in the summer of last year when he failed to make public appearances for a couple of months.

"He clearly had a health event, let me put it that way. He was clearly in some ways, back in August, not making critical decisions," Hill said. "The best of our knowledge, he seems to be kind of on the mend."

Hill said no one can say for sure what's going on in the opaque society, but added, "Who succeeds him, I think, would be very important."


CIA List Confirms North Korean Cabinet Shakeup

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has released its latest list of North Korean cabinet members which confirms a shakeup of the country's industrial ministers, its Web site showed on Jan. 16.

Seoul's Unification Ministry said last week North Korea reshuffled five industry-related ministers late last year. The shakeup coincided with North Korea's new year economic drive to rebuild the country's frail industrial infrastructure and solve chronic food shortages.

The CIA list of foreign governments updated on Jan. 7 confirmed the new names in the North's Cabinet member list: Minister of Agriculture Kim Chang-sik, Minister of Electric Power Industry Ho Thaek, Minister of Forestry Kim Kwang-yong, Minister of Metal Industry Kim Thae-bong and Minister of Railways Chon Kil-su.

Speculation has grown that Pyongyang may be replacing more ministers, but the CIA list had no other new names.

On the CIA list, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il held the country's three top posts -- general secretary of the Workers' Party, supreme commander of the Korean People's Army and chairman of the National Defense Commission. Jo Myong-rok was first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, while Kim Yong-nam was president of presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, the North's parliament which is set to hold an election on March 8.

However, the CIA did not list Kim's brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek who is reportedly second in power.


N. Korea's Trade with China on Steady Rise, Deficit Growing

BEIJING (Yonhap) -- North Korea's trade with China has shown steady growth in recent years, surpassing US$2 billion last year, while its deficit has grown in tandem, customs officials in Beijing said on Jan. 19.

Cumulative trade volume from 2003-2007 reached $7.6 billion, with North Korean exports valued at $2.5 billion, resulting in a trade deficit of $2.6 billion on the North Korean side, they said.

Bilateral trade continued to grow from $1.6 billion in 2005 to $2.1 billion in the January-October period in 2008, with data on the final two months yet to be collected.

In contrast, inter-Korean trade has stagnated due to frozen diplomatic relations since the launch of the conservative Lee Myung-bak government in South Korea last year.

North Korea exchanged goods and services worth $1.8 billion with its second-largest trading partner, South Korea, last year, up a mere 1.2 percent from a year earlier. Inter-Korean trade in 2007 increased by 33 percent under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun government.

North Korea recently opened a consulate branch office in Dandong, a Chinese city bordering the North, in what appeared to be a move to reinforce trade with its biggest trading partner.

Dandong, located right across the Yalu River from North Korea's Sinuiju, is the passageway for about 70 percent of trade between the communist allies.


Russia Does Not See N. Korea As Nuclear Power: Envoy

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Russia does not acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power and will continue working with regional allies to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions, Moscow's envoy to Seoul said on Jan. 21.

Glev Ivashendsov, Russian ambassador to South Korea, said regional stability is "crucial to Russia's economic development," as Moscow is pushing for increased natural resources development in Siberia and the Far East.

North Korea detonated its first atomic device in 2006. The relatively small underground test had less than a kiloton in yield, below what is considered a successful nuclear test.

"The explosion occurred just 177 kilometers from Russian territory, so this issue has direct repercussions on Russia," the envoy said in a speech at a forum hosted by the state-run Korean Global Foundation.

Stalled negotiations aimed at terminating North Korea's nuclear weapons program are expected to move forward only after the United States, a member of the six-party talks, rolls out its North Korea policy under the newly inaugurated Barack Obama administration.

North Korea claims it has joined the ranks of nuclear nations with its 2006 test. Participants of the nuclear talks -- also including South Korea, China and Japan -- reject the North's position.

The envoy said Russia's energy project in its eastern region will be "as large as the development of the American West."

"Russia needs security guarantees in neighboring countries for it," he said.

To break the impasse in inter-Korean relations, the envoy suggested Seoul and Moscow push for joint economic projects, such as connecting the Trans-Korean Railway and the Trans-Siberian Railway that runs across Russia.

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